- From Jane Allen to Water Dancer:A Brief History of the Feminist (?) Sports Novel
I am interested here in an obvious fact: that women have written very few sports novels in America for the equally obvious reason that from the 1920s until the 1970s they were largely excluded from what seemed an essentially masculine world of sport. They were not excluded from sport itself, of course, but from that sporting world in which sport mattered as more than physical health, that world where sport was viewed as a training ground, where sport was thought to teach valuable lessons for conduct in life generally, where sport embodied a cultural myth and ideology. In this world, not only did boys and men play athletic games, but men wrote books for boys to read that made the moral lessons of the playing field clear, and occasionally a male author transformed these masculine athletic experiences into a novel that the world welcomed as "literature." Women neither played the same games nor wrote about them in the same way, when they wrote at all. This essay examines the fiction they did write.
More particularly, I want to make a case for Jenifer Levin's novel about marathon swimming, Water Dancer (1982), as a major breakthrough in the genre of sports fiction. In the first place, it is a fine novel, but, more important here, it offers a feminist alternative to the masculine sports myth, the first important novel to do so that I am aware of. Water Dancer [End Page 9] counters that long literary tradition, from Jack London and Ring Lardner to Malamud, Coover, Roth, and beyond, in which women have been adjuncts to the hero's achievements at best, mtjor obstacles at worst: a fundamental antagonism between the athlete and his women as a staple of American male sports fiction for a century. Women simply have not established an alternative literary tradition. Among the relative handful of novels by women in this century there may exist an undiscovered masterpiece, but our cultural history makes such a possibility unlikely.
The position of women who would write of sports in this country is revealed in particularly interesting ways by the example of the few who have written juvenile fiction. From Gilbert Patten, Ralph Henry Barbour, and other early writers on, men have written thousands of sports novels for boys with a single plot: a story about achievement in the face of severe competition, with fair play and other virtues conspicuously promoted but with heroic action and triumph overwhelming all other concerns. Women have contributed at most one or two percent of the novels in this genre. Before the 1920s, girls' athletics offered a potentially rich subject for fiction. Describing athletic competition at women's colleges at the turn of the century, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz has written that "college women played rough, competed keenly, and cheered passionately" (159). A handful of writers created fiction out of such competition. One of Grace Margaret Gallaher's Vassar Stories, published in 1899, described how in the fury of a game one young woman on her class basketball team "broke her nose, and jumped up shouting, 'Come on, I've only blacked my eye'" (227). Another player in the same story dislocates her knee, flinging herself between an opponent and a bench in a mad scramble for the ball. The rivalry is fierce, the emotions unladylike, the ethics of the players not always exemplary. In another story from the same era, one of Julia Augusta Schwartze's Vassar Studies (1899), a student steals away from the infirmary, risking additional injury to win the hurdles race for the honor of her class on Field Day. Gilbert Patten, Ralph Henry Barbour, and other writers told the same story over and over about their boy heroes, and their successors have continued the tradition to our own time, but as such competition for girls and women disappeared in the 1920s, opportunities for women writers to develop a feminine sports myth disappeared as well.
In the 1910s, Jessie Graham Flower, Gertrude Morrison, and Edith Bancroft wrote series books about female athletes, after which women seem to have dropped from the field altogether...